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What Makes A Book Sell?

This story was co-written by Maggie Burleson and Gabrielle Goodloe. The Article was edited by Ana Darhma.

It’s a little late today, but better late than never! I apologize for the late post, I’ve been under the weather.

Labels are the definition of all societies; they’re the things that can make or break our success as a whole. But on a broader scale, they can also help us understand and define the world around us in a more clear or distinct way, and the fact is, that a lot of times labels can either be very good and useful, or they can suck and make things a little too general.

In a writer’s case, a label is often necessary to define their book. From the whole process of genre, to title, and book cover, there are hundreds of  different ways to label a book. Just think about the first thing a person sees when approaching your book-the big bold letters or an illustrative design that  catches their attention. The cover piques their interest and draws them into your story, so what does YOUR title say about your book? What does it say about your story? What should they even mention in their story?

And that’s what we’re going to talk about today:  some trips and tricks I’ve learned from years of reading fiction and also a full year of interning at two publishing companies. One of my very first jobs as a writer was a pretty common internship for those looking to get into the publishing world. At the first internship, I worked for a company from August of 2018 to April of 2019 reviewing manuscripts. I read through piles of manuscripts and wrote reviews, encouraging the publisher to either pick up a manuscript or drop it like a hot potato. The lessons I learned at this internship were countless. If you have an interest in becoming a writer, I would suggest getting an internship like this. It’ll teach you more than you care to know, both about books and people in general. For example, , some people think they are generally a good enough writer that they don’t have to edit a novel before sending it to a publisher.

Another daunting task is getting your manuscript selected by a publisher. There are many things that factor into why a manuscript may not be chosen, but you can lessen the number of rejections by taking the time to look over both the large and small details of your book. In my case,  the process of editing books was pretty simple. I had a list that included questions like below:

  • What’s the tone of the story?
  • What’s the language?
  • What’s the violence level?

And the two biggest questions:

  • Would you pick the novel up in a store, based on its title?
  • Is the title marketable to a mass audience?

You might think these questions have nothing to do with each other, but let me tell you, I quickly learned that I was wrong.

One of the first tips I picked up is that the title should be super specific.  My biggest problem with reading from the sludge pile was that, often times, titles don’t match their books. Poorly titled manuscripts are more likely to be rejected because it might be an indication of the quality of the work. For readers, your title is the first thing they see as an introduction to your book,  so it pays to choose a title that accurately reflects the story. If your title is something like Moonlight Walk and doesn’t actually mention a walk in the moonlight, or it offers nothing specific to the book, readers become disappointed and may consider not purchasing your books in the future. It’s important to remember that your title alone creates expectations with readers. The goal is to pull readers in and make them want to know more without giving away too much of the story.

An accepted manuscript means  the publisher sees the potential of the story to connect with readers and has the potential to create sales. The publishers see something different about your story that they haven’t seen in the hundreds of others they’ve picked up from the slush pile, so  want to give your book the best possible chance to stand out from the thousands of other books the publisher will receive.. And guess what? Your title will be a huge part of that, even if it does get changed later.

Writers should also think about what unintentional associations a  book title may elicit. I specifically remember throughout my internship where there were instances when some books t were turned down in part because the title already had a popular name and the book couldn’t be marketed separately, or it would cost the publishing house too much money to market the difference. Remember that your goal is to make your book stand out from other writers. You want readers to pick up your book and think of your title and your name.

If your book is titled something like Cabin in the Woods, it loses a good percentage of its marketability. Especially if the published title has not sold well, with the fact that there is a horror movie with the same title, your target market will pair the two together. It’s really hard to separate the two if your target market is a genre like  romance instead of horror. It’s even harder if it’s in the same horror genre, because people may believe that you copied the movie and may not pick up your book. Imagine picking up a book titled The Notebook or A Walk to Remember. What are the very first assumptions and expectations your readers will have?

Don’t forget that nothing happens in a vacuum. Trends in the publishing industry do have a role in how your book title is received by both publishers and readers. For example, thriller books featuring the word ‘girl’ in their titles have seen tremendous growth with the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. Sometimes we see a period of time where every book seems to have a title on the cover or takes place in a specific location. It’s okay to pay attention to these trends.

Publishers even encourage you to follow these trendsBut don’t just copy titles because they are popular. Make sure your title will stand out from the crowd in a noticeable and positive fashion. And in addition make sure your title is specific to your book and that it will make it not only marketable, but specific to your readers as well. Afterall, your goal is to get published, not to get lost in the publishing chaos.

So how do you make your book marketable, and when hen should you start thinking about marketing? The truth is, the moment  you start writing the outline for your book, you should think about labels and marketing.

Think about the genre and the target market for your book, and , then go Google search titles in your genre. For instance, my books all revolve around new adult Fantasy, however, my target market includes  young readers who are transitioning into young adults and looking for new material to read. I knew this before I even understood what my book would be about, soI made my way to the search engine and googled  the most popular books in young adult fiction. I came to a realization that book series, which included a total of 6-12 books were extremely popular. All the books had short names with one or two words like Haunted or The Magic Coven. This helped me lay out a distinct marketing plan for my book before I’d even started writing the series! My labels were easily decided from everything to genre to the title of my book in less than a few hours work.

I also noticed that the books all had softer colors like deep red, blue, purple and green, and that;s when I knew right away that I wanted my book to incorporate red and blue colors together because of themes like magic, vampires and police officers. It was simply anotehr  easy decision made based off research.

But Maggie, I’m traditionally publishing. Why do I need to think about titles before my book is even ready to edit?

Well, that’s a good question. Whether you are traditionally publishing or self-publishing, book titles and covers are the very first thing that you see the moment you walk into a bookstore and look over to the shelves . It’s really what grabs the reader’s attention. Some notable publishers (i.e. the big five) may not even look at your book beyond your title, especially if your title is not marketable. Remember, these are often large companies and they rarely take a chance on stories they think aren’t certain won’t sell. Wouldn’t you feel the same way in a business?

By choosing your title and even considering a cover mockup before submitting to a publisher, you can often beat the race and stand out in a crowd, proving  that your book is marketable and can be sold. As a result, you’re already putting yourself ahead of the game, and isn’t that what we’re all trying to accomplish?

When we break down a piece of writing into its base elements, we can divide it simply into categories like characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Once a manuscript is accepted by a publisher, however, in the process of making a complete project, other things come into play besides those base elements. An accepted manuscript is a sign of potential. Your story will potentially connect with readers, become a complete and finished piece, and perhaps most importantly, sell well. With enough potential, publishers are willing to invest heavily in your work.

It takes work in order to reach a return on that investment. Editing and marketing are needed to create a cohesive piece, but sometimes the most obvious elements of the book don’t line up with one another. There are several reasons this happens and we’ll look at the examples below on  why they work (or don’t work) and how to solve the issue.

From interning, the second most important tip I picked up is that the cover should  represent the book (this is a must!)Obviously, readers would expect the story to include elements of the cover, so the cover should be set up to introduce the reader with compelling imagery. The colors should set the tone for the story as well, and the title should define the genre and tone.The picture should introduce one small element of the story, without giving away the entire plot. Think about books like Harry Potter. Whether you like it or not, you have to admit that the book series has transcended generations since its first publication in the early nineties. Why? I believe, in large part, it’s due to the simplicity of titles like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s memorable, easy to read, and quickly defines the plot of the story. The cover is simply as iconic as the title: a boy on a broom surrounded by the walls of a castle. The  series is a perfect example of book covers and titles creating a harmony to enhance the overall effect of both elements.

A look at the most popular published books shows that the covers often don’t have people on them. Why? It doesn’t tell us much about the story. For example, a  hot chick draped in fabric or a topless guy with dimples doesn’t really sing plot lines. For this reason, authors should focus on using covers that work with their unique story. Each genre has its own book cover conventions and while there is nothing wrong with continuing with a model that works, it doesn’t necessarily mean  that the imagery has to be obvious.

Peter Mendelsund, who has designed book covers like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, prefers to make unconventional design choices. A look through his body of cover design work shows many different types, shapes, and colors, but what remains the same is his attempt to communicate some element of each story on those covers. With this example, Mendelsund used obvious imagery, but he combined it with a unique and bright color palette that pulls readers in. Regardless of what cover is chosen, writers should remember that after readers finish the story, they should be able to ook over the cover again to find new meaning in it.

This is why it’s often best to have a digital marketer, who has experience in color play and an objective eye design for your covers. Building a design for marketing when you don’t have a marketing background at all is a bit like pulling teeth. After years of making faux covers for my novel, I can vouch for this. A few google searches should be able to give you the information you need to make your novel covers a success.

In the previous blog, I focused on the issue of titles not matching the story, but what about books like the one below where the title, cover, and main story are not working together? It creates a lot of confusion for readers and they may not be interested in buying your books in the future. While Watership Down does turn out to be the name of a town in the book, it has very little to do with the plot of the story. The title of this book brings to mind stories of World War I and 2 and fighting battles. However, this story tells the plight of a group of bunnies running from the intrusion of a man in their hometown. There actually isn’t much war.

So what happened with the title? While it is relevant to the story, it isn’t relevant in a way that matters. The author was probably going for a title that excites the mind of the reader, but turned out to be something short and sweet. In theory, this is a great idea, but in this case, the title is not really assisting in making this story a good sell.

How to fix it? Look for something relevant to the overall plot of the story, something something to the effect of Escaping Man or The Long-Eared Escape that would have  made the story clearer..

So the final verdict is this, dear writers, when you are trying to figure out which direction to take your book-and if it’s ready for publishing- think about these tips:

  1. Is the theme clear?
  2. Is the title orginal/catchy?
  3. Would it place in a supermarket?
  4. Who is your target market and how well does your book apply to them?

Even if you are traditionally publishing, keep note that these are the things that publisher’s look for when reading manuscripts. You want your story to be the best that it can be. Give them something that they can’t turn away.

Next week, we will discuss more modern covers and continue to look at the covers and whether or not they strongly convey the message of the book.

Think you have the courage to see how your manuscript hold ups?

Send your first page, cover (if applicable) and short summary of the story to admin@merlotetmots.com and I will give you honest (and constructive) feedback on your story.

Remember dear readers,

Say it with Words.

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Maggie Chapman View All →

Writer. Reader. College student.

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